Interview with Leika Suzumara, RD
I knew Leika peripherally for many years through mutual interests before I realized that she was a Registered Dietician that graduated from Bastyr. I ran into her at an anti-GMO event and she introduced herself as the Coordinator of the Community Kitchen Northwest program at Seattle Tilth. We immediately connected over our shared interests in both social justice and nutrition, and promised to stay in touch. Below is a greatly edited version of our conversation that we had when we did connect over nutrition, justice, nourishment, and health.
student nutrition association
Mirit Markowitz: Could you tell me a little bit more about how you got to Bastyr University to study nutrition? Why Bastyr of all the schools that you chose?
Leika Suzumura: I actually grew up in Redmond and I had gone to Inglemoor High School which is just down the street from Bastyr. I was very aware of Bastyr all through my schooling years, in that primary time, and I originally wanted to be a naturopath and so, I had very much looked into that sphere already for that.
Then, when I decided to approach nutrition, I looked at a couple of options. I knew that Bastyr offered a nutrition program that seemed like a great fit. But I was looking at other options, and none of them seemed to look at food first before looking at supplements, and just isolated nutrients as themselves, as opposed to looking at the whole body, mind spirit and environment.
That's what I wanted. I wanted to be able to look at food as a source of nourishment instead of just looking at nutrients. That it was really this connection of food and the experience with food that has really led me to understand and value of the work that I do now as a community nutrition educator.
MM: When did social justice become an interest?
LS: It really started once I became an RD, when I was able to really put Community Nutrition into action. I felt like that gave me some validity to address nutrition as an expert. I got involved with Community Kitchens around 2007-2008 right when I graduated. At that time, I was vegan so I was really trying to push this message around what I thought was healthy, and nobody really listened to me because it was like, "here is this crazy lady who wants to educate these people". Even though I was pretty aware because again, at that point, I had been studying for good solid five years, but on my own without a formal education.
Having had that experience, I knew that to be validated, I should have a degree. Whether I agree or not, that's how the system works. I knew that I would be more effective in reaching a community with grant-funding if I had that degree. Therefore, I felt like that's when the need for addressing some of the inequities around food access became a part of my work.
MM: Almost like you knew from the beginning. "If I want to reach these communities, I need to get that. I need to get that degree. I need to get the RD. I need to ..."
LS: I need to be valued as the expert in the field. Quite honestly, a lot of people out in the world are doing nutrition education without formal education, which, to some degree, is valid. We all eat; we all know that there's things that are good for us based on how we feel but because nutrition has become such a big area of interest in the health community, I often am very weary of who is providing the information, what their motivations are, and how accurate it is.
It's complicated because I don't necessarily think that we need to make [the nutrition field] more and more elite; I am an undergrad with an RD, and trying to move it to a master's [only] program also limits who can do that. There's all kinds of structural barriers in place to make it so that certain people won't be able to get to that level because of the system.
I don't necessarily agree with that approach but I do understand it. It's not an easy thing. I don't really have that solution but one thing that I am seeing is that a lot of the communities that have the least access to accurate information respond most positively when it comes from up here.
One way to extend the knowledge that I have as an RD is to peer-educate folks out in the community or educate people in the community so they can go and peer-educate in their community. At South Shore School where we have some programming both in gardening and cooking, there is a single mom who is African-American. She is really into cooking and nutrition, and has learned a lot of things on her own. I want to give her credit for that.
Then, her and I worked together on some specific talking points around how to show and this idea of organics. I gave her some information and some resources. Then, she went to the community dinner setting and gave that information to hundreds of families, and they were so interested. Every time a person raised their hand to say, "I want to have more information, I want to get this resource that you're handing out."
What does community health mean? Is it about reducing cholesterol numbers? Is it about reducing the percentage of obesity and diabetes? Yes, in some ways that is how we calculate it but what if we look at the flip and said, "How much wellbeing do you have?" How do we calculate that? Are you happy about your life? Do you feel like you have a purpose in your life, and that you have a place in the community that you contribute, and that you share, and take away from your community?
I know that there are studies that have looked at this quality of life among different Latina women. From my memory, they had the highest quality of life. When they were ask what made them have this quality of life, it was that they had family, and that they had a community, and that they felt like they belong. Yes, I think it's important that we increase servings of foods and vegetables and whole grains and all that but I actually think the deeper quality of life is that we feel like we have a place in our community.
That's why to me community nutrition is so powerful because everybody can have a place at the table whether you cook the food, whether you wash the dishes, whether you set the table, whether you went outside with a group of kids and cut flowers to decorate the table that you sat around and had a meal together. That gives purpose to people, and it brings happiness because they sit together, they have conversation together, they share a meal, and nourish. After a meal, you feel satisfied.
There's so much intersection there than with this idea of social justice and looking at systems that keep oppression in place. Where someone lived could have influenced what school they went to that then impacted their job, and impacted their healthcare access, and that all has to do with systematic oppression. Whether you call it racism, whether you call it sexism, any of those isms are equated to oppression. That is, to me, what I want to address when I talk about social justice, or food justice, is where is oppression happening to keep people from having a quality of life because it's very multifaceted.
MM: I just went to a Black Lives Matter event. It must have been in February. This man who founded the Black Panthers Chapter in Seattle spoke, and one of the first things he highlighted was how that particular group was the group that was feeding the children in the community.
LS: They started the breakfast table.
MM: They're having a hot breakfast for children in the morning who had food insecurity. Growing up in Berkeley, being pretty plugged in, I knew about the Black Panthers; we have Malcolm X Day in Berkeley where I grew up and stuff like very posh, bougy, liberal kind of life that I've led in my life, but that was really shocking.
I remember visibly I was like, "Oh my God." Like, "Of course." Like, "Feeding and serving the community was their first course of action." It makes a lot of sense that we don't talk about that now because in a lot of ways, that oppression you're talking about really muted the message that they were trying to bring across. Those organizations, the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers, they were the people who were feeding the children in their community.
I think that that's a really interesting thing but I don't know if a lot of people know about sometimes. Reintroducing the food and the nourishment into a community is often times the first step. It sounds really simple just having a meal but it's also not really not that simple as far as like what I can do to mobilize people for that quality of life that you are talking about because the kids are hungry. He was saying that in the speech. He was like, "When kids are hungry, they can't think."
LS: Yeah, and they act accordingly. I know when I'm hungry, I'm short and impatient. Imagine having that hunger and those pains in school where you're trying to learn, and then you get aggressive because you are hungry. I went to a [Growing Power] conference a couple of years ago and it was amazing.
There was a program out of, I want to say it was Philadelphia, that did this youth program, and they did a lot of different things around growing food, and cooking, and nutrition. One activity was they gave you these scenarios in history where they used food to mobilize the community towards social justice. It was just like maybe two to three paragraphs about this historical event, and then you were supposed to act it out. It was really, really cool.
There were four different scenarios. One of them was the Black Panthers Breakfast Meal. One of them was the Sit-ins in Greensboro where they sat at the counters that were dedicated towards rights but as one of the big things that really mobilizes the rights movement. Then, there was one about Gandhi, and how Gandhi did the walk to the ocean to gather salt because the British were taxing salt and did not allow them to make their own salt.
I just thought that that was exactly what you were saying. It's like one of those aha moments where it's like, it's so much more than just providing food to people. It's about moving the community and mobilizing people around the commonality because yes, it's our right to eat but it is our need to eat. Food has such a place in our lives in so many ways that nutrition is just one aspect of it but it is a way to bring people together. It's a way to motivate people.
MM: If you can look back at your experience of Bastyr in the nutrition program, was there anything that stood out to you as exemplary or even anything that stood out as not? I don't want to put words into your mouth there. Talk to your experience but using Bastyr as an example, but then also just our field in general, what's missing? I swear it is like, how we can get these ideas to come together?
I started in nutrition in the food justice movement. Then, I go and I get my nutrition degree. I find it to be a completely separate conversation happening somewhere else. That seems crazy because like you said, we're the food experts. How are we not all overlapping in some way? I'm wondering what are your thoughts as far as in our field, what's missing? What do we need? How do we get more clinicians to also be in this role of social justice focused, community-focused?
LS: Yeah. I would say, perhaps what's missing is drawing the lines between the connections of that interrelatedness. For example, I think Bastyr does a really great job, like you mentioned before, of addressing the whole person as your approach to healing and health, and the same needs to then be applied in a larger scope. For example, within a person, you recognize that there's the body, mind, and spirit, for example.
Then, in the community, we need to address that there are all these other interrelated elements that impact our health on every single level. There's so many things. Everything is always interrelated. I feel like we are doing a really good job of looking at the whole person but we also need to look at that whole community.
Once we start talking about social justice, then you have to look at housing, and education, and healthcare, and all that kinds of stuff but we can't ignore that all those things are interrelated, and it affects our health. Then, also looking at the fact that there is people with and without.
I just remember my clinical rotation at Bastyr, I felt like I was preaching to the choir. People who choose to go to Bastyr often times are ready or bought into natural health, and they're already really aware. Maybe they're already doing yoga, and they're eating quinoa. The conversations that were happening at the Bastyr Clinic were completely different than the conversations that we're having out in the community.
Bastyr is classically known to have a bubble. Maybe people don't want to pop the bubble but you need to expand the bubble to include more people, more perspectives, more cultures, more ways of living, more food ways. The bubble is too small.
We can't keep our outreach to the people who are actively seeking us out but go out to people who maybe aren't seeking us out or maybe don't even necessarily know if they want to hear the message but once they do, they're like, "This is so important."
MM: I wish we could keep talking. This has been so beneficial, thank you.
LS: One of the first things you said in this last question was any takeaways that I have from Bastyr that impacted anything that I did, and I do want to say there was a transformational moment in my education at Bastyr, and it was in a counseling class. Our teacher gave these two scenarios and we had to think about how we would counsel these people.
One scenario was we're in the grocery line, and there was a mom with a young kid who was crying because he wanted to have donuts, or a candy, or something like that. Then, the other scenario was a gentleman who was in line at McDonald's, and he had just had triple bypass surgery, and definitely had heart disease issues, and he was about to order some fast food.
All I remember is that we paired up in groups, and talked about how we would counsel. We all reported back about what we would say and how we would say it, and why, and all this, and that. She listened to all of us, she didn't say anything. Clearly there was a lot of judgment coming through the different things that we were talking about. The first thing that she said is, "Who are you to judge?" That's all she said, and I have to say it hit me like a thousand pounds of bricks.
That comment hit me deeply about as I'm going into the field of nutrition and I want to be an educator in the community, who am I to judge people? What does that mean to judge people? Where are those judgments coming from? How does it come out when I'm talking to people, and how do I talk without judgment? That has continued to be a work in progress for me, and it's one of the most valuable things that I left Bastyr with. It's one of the things that I constantly ask myself every time I'm out in the community doing a class, doing a workshop, doing education, one-on-one conversation that I had with people is, was I judging them? Why was I judging?
Judgments, I think, are a natural thing. We have opinions. We want to let people know about those opinions but it doesn't help us when it comes to nutrition, and people are so emotionally connected to the foods that they eat. Then, it builds barriers. Then, it holds all kinds of reasons for people to then not hear your message. I will say that that has been one of the most impactful things that I've not only taken away from my experience of Bastyr but have continued to really dissect in my own work as a community nutritionist, and I'm thankful for that. I'm very thankful for that day.